Ex Africa Semper Aliquid Novi

“There’s always something new coming out of Africa”, said Pliny the Elder in his Natural History in 79 AD.

Today, I got hit by a goat. Not the reverse, which is actually (sadly) a rather frequent occurrence that I have experienced a couple of times in my years in the third world. This time, I was sitting stock still and the goat hit me. I was on my way through downtown Ouaga traffic, which in the morning hours as people are riding to work looks something like this:


As I was sitting at a light in one of these backups – actually, only about ten blocks after I took this picture, so many of these same folks were around me – I felt a sharp blow on my left arm. Luckily, I was sitting still because it was powerful enough to knock my hand off the handlebars and no doubt would have sent me crashing to the ground if I had been moving. Passing me on the left were two guys and a goat on a motorcycle. I wish to heck I’d gotten their picture because it was hilarious. The guy in the back was trying to control the goat, which was tossing its head around with a sort of triumphant air and looking back at me. When bad things are happening, you have to take your consolation somehow. The guy in front waved at me, I waved back “no worries”, and that was that. I have a little scrape on my arm. The goat is no doubt in a stewpot somewhere by now. I prefer that to the reverse.

I finally made my way down past the palace of the Mogho Naaba, the traditional king of the Moore people (and important player in the political events of last fall) and to the atelier of Karim, the bike mechanic. He has sold me a new bicycle, and I was bringing him his money and also some requests for minor repairs to the bike in question.

Here is the workshop, Karim on the left and his assistant holding the back tire of my bike (that’s the rest of the bike lying on the pile behind Karim, the black frame). This sort of explains why he is so willing to come to my house and work on my vehicles.


He’s got literally hundreds of bikes piled up around this open dirt space he uses as a workshop. God knows what he does with them when he’s ready to go home at night. He is right at the edge of an enormous expanse of bicycle and motorcycle parts shops, repair shops, a water tank for washing bikes and motos, a gas station and several guys selling gas in liquor bottles, and two, count ’em, mosques, in case one isn’t big enough. It’s the officially designated cycle market. Shows you how serious Burkinabè are about their two-wheeled transportation.

While I was sitting there, I got a call from my boss at the University, Elise Ilboudo Thiombiano, asking me to stop by and see her. I was surprised to hear from her, I don’t have class until tomorrow and I don’t normally come in on Mondays. I had stopped by on my way down to Karim’s to drop off a projector that the embassy loaned me (thanks!), and I wondered if she had found it in her office closet and was wondering where it came from or if she could use it. I also wondered if somehow my sins had caught up with me, though which ones weren’t immediately apparent.

Anyway, after fretting a bit over this request, I steamed on down to the university on my new bike and found her in her office. Come to find out that her son, recently graduated from a private high school here, wants to go to the US to study computer science. He has been admitted to a technical training school in Brooklyn, a private non-profit, accredited, not apparently a ripoff place. He went down to the US Embassy to get his student visa, a matter that in my (30-year-old) experience is pretty much a paper-shuffling matter. And he got refused. The vice-consul didn’t even look at his papers, said Dr. Ilboudo. I sympathized and promised to forward the complaint to the Public Diplomacy people at the embassy. She was pissed. I hope the embassy people can do something about this, though newly-minted vice-consuls are notoriously pigheaded about responding to requests from other embassy departments to approve visas for the children of their contacts. I had a case in Haiti where a vice-consul actually rejected one of my grantees (that is, someone who had a US government grant to travel to the US for a training program). I had to have my boss take it up to the ambassador to get the decision reversed (and the guy did come back after his US training program ended).

Dr. Ilboudo said “it’s stuff that this that, when it happens in Africa, really reminds us that we are Africans.” She also said “I expect this sort of thing from the French embassy. They lost their credibility with us years ago. But the Americans? I expect better of you.” Nasty remarks but no doubt reflective of how upset she was, and rightfully so. I don’t know the kid, but I am about 99% certain that the family’s intent is for him to go to America and get a degree in computer science. They can surely afford it (the husband is some sort of high-level government official, what exactly I’m not sure), the kid has the credentials necessary, his English is fine, the only reason I can think of for a rejection is some sort of untutored “gut feeling” on the part of the consul. One wonders how much he gets out and meets actual Burkinabè. Consuls, particularly those that do non-immigrant visa work, often have trouble getting to know ordinary people in the countries they serve in because there is always that awkward moment when people find out where you work and want you to reconsider the case of their cousin who got turned down last month.

I did non-immigrant visa work in Lomé when I was there in 1985-86. I had about a dozen cases a day, and I spent an hour in the consul’s office to take care of all the applicants. It was a snap. Very few Togolese in those days wanted to go to the US; it was mostly government officials and their families going for official purposes, with the occasional business traveler or academic. Only rarely would I have to even interview people. Not any more. Now there is a huge line out behind the Embassy on visa days and you have two minutes with a guy behind bullet-proof glass to convince him of your bona fides. Kind of like Haiti was in the day (and still, presumably). Presumably there are tons of scams and the consuls are always being lied to. When that happens often enough, you just assume that everybody who comes before you is a liar. Sort of like cops in tough neighborhoods. But just like in those bad neighborhoods, the vast majority of people are law-abiding and the official has to exert him- or herself to sort out the bad minority without punishing the innocent. It is a thankless job.

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